Discussion Guide

All Roads Lead to Rome Except Ours

Four poems in the October 2018 issue.

In “Ice Cream for I Scream,” a certain “Herr Stumpf” appears at a lectern to question “the consensus // that I is for ice cream.” His alternative? “I’s for spaghetti, // all spaghetti, he avers, / being once alphabetti, // all spaghetti being once that capital I / that it is when it’s dry, // not the maddening doodle that it is / when it’s done and awry.”

“Alphabetti” refers to letter-shaped pasta—and this poem bears a fitting resemblance to alphabet soup. Mark Waldron sneaks the names of letters into his lines (“the attendees // are serves their teas”). Similar letters often resurface in nearby words (“summer”/“just”/“sunniest,” “sanatorium”/“arboretum”). The title scrambles the common rhyme “I scream for ice cream”—which reappears, in slightly altered form, in the argument of Herr Stumpf. The German lecturer hints that progress is identical to disorder: to be “done” is to go “awry.” Once he finishes his talk, things indeed go awry; his audience—unlike pasta—“don’t soften, no rather, they stiffen.”

 

 

In “The Silence Will Be Sudden Then Last,” Deborah Landau addresses the hereafter in no uncertain terms: “Sybaritic afterlife I don’t crave you.” It’s a common sentiment, yet her reasons are idiosyncratic. “What’s chic will shrink. / There won’t be any pretty, pity.” Landau’s “pretty” wordplay obscures the harsh realities of death, as does the stanza’s concluding line. “We’ll be so squashed and sour there,” she writes—a concern that presumes the ongoing existence of a there, as well as a we.

Then comes the sonnet’s closing couplet, whose rhyme and end-stopped lines provide seals of finality: “Oh fuck it’s true. / Then nothing left of you.” Who—or what—is that “you”? It could indicate some beloved addressee, one half of the earlier “we.” Or it could refer, as it does in the first line, to the afterlife itself. After life, Landau suggests, may come nothing at all.

 

 

In “Zapotec Crossers (or, Haiku I Write Post-PTSD Nightmares),” Alan Pelaez Lopez uses a traditional Japanese form to describe a contemporary North American tragedy. In English, haiku generally include three lines of a predetermined syllabic pattern; they tend to focus on the natural world, and to contain a “kigo,” or seasonal reference. Lopez devotes four of these five haiku to spring, summer, fall, and winter, respectively—but each captures a most unnatural development. “Waves smack the body,” the first one reads. “Nayeli, seven, drowning. / Spring: crossing season.” In every haiku, a child attempts to cross the Mexican border into the United States; the travelers’ ages follow their names, as in obituaries.

The fifth and final haiku reads as follows: “Itzel, five, plays dead. / Border patrol agents see / her body — they leave.” In contrast, Lopez does the opposite of leave: the poet dreams about migrant children, writes about them, and shares their names.

 

 

In “Les Sangliers,” Gregory Maguire describes a roadside encounter with the titular “wild boars.” Near the Forêt de Cavillargues in southern France, they crossed a highway "in a single ribbon…. So how could we even tell what they were, / How distinguish that ruche of shadow and wind / From any other ghost of the district?”

In Maguire’s telling, the district is full of ghosts. Pondering the “suffix -argues / that trails behind village names all around here,” he posits that it refers to tracts of land once owned by Roman soldiers. Perhaps Cavillargues, then, means “the acres of Cavillus.” With that, he imagines the long-dead Cavillus wandering “from the marble steps of the Maison Carrée”—a Roman ruin in nearby Nîmes—“having paid obeisance to Roman gods and governors, / Perhaps uncertain from an encounter with the local plonk, / And les sangliers came out to give him a thrill,” to warn him “that this is not yet the Forêt de Cavillargues / you can’t run through it as though you were a ground-level mistral”—the strong regional wind.

This “gentrifying” Cavillus is a forerunner of the speaker, whose use of English marks him, too, as an outsider. In other echoes of the Roman, he has just paid obeisance to a local saint at a fête votive, and consumed, if not the local plonk, then the “barbe à papa,” or cotton candy, before confronting the boars. But unlike a classic gentrifier, Maguire gives those animals the last word: “all roads lead to Rome except ours.

Originally Published: October 1st, 2018
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In